The 16th Century Protestant Reformation, which started in Europe five hundred years ago, was ordained by God to deliver His people from the heresies of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). According to His sovereign will, God raised men of courage and conviction to defend His Holy Word against error, corruption and compromise. Those who boldly took a stand for the truth suffered for their faith and willingly gave their lives for the cause of Christ.
One of the Reformers who suffered martyrdom was William Tyndale who translated the Bible from its original languages into English. A contemporary of German Reformer, Martin Luther, Tyndale was a fine scholar and theologian. He was also a brilliant linguist, fluent in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French and German.
o William Tyndale
• Early life and education
William Tyndale was born in 1491 in the county of Gloucestershire, England. He came from a family of rich land owners and wool traders.
Tyndale was educated at Oxford University where he graduated with a Master of Arts degree. Later, he pursued a course in theology at Cambridge University. Finding the course a disappointment – he “was appalled that studying the subject did not involve even the simple reading of the Bible! At that time the Church greatly neglected the Holy Scriptures. Many of the clergy were woefully ignorant of the Bible. William Tyndale was a God-fearing man and he began studying the Bible himself and teaching some of his fellow students from it” (http://www.localhistories.org/tyndale.html).
Deeply influenced by the radical theological views of the Reformers especially those of Martin Luther, Tyndale became a strong supporter of church reform in his student days. In 1521, Tyndale returned to Gloucestershire where he began to preach openly. His “heretical” convictions enraged the RCC. Tyndale was summoned before the chancellor of the diocese of Worcester and warned against spreading his divisive views. Undaunted, he continued his preaching ministry.
• Bible translation
Tyndale believed that the Bible should be the sole authority for the Church’s doctrines and practices. Deeply convicted that the only way to God and salvation is through His Word, he wanted to make the Scriptures available to the common folk. Thus was sown in Tyndale’s heart a seed of desire to translate the New Testament into the English language.
One day when a priest opposed his beliefs, he responded: “If God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Tyndale). This was no empty boast, for the reformer would soon put the Bible into the hands of the lay people.
In 1523, he moved to London with the intention of translating the New Testament from Greek into English. However, when he failed to obtain permission and funds from the Bishop of London for his translation work, he left for Germany.
“He hoped to continue his translation work in greater safety and sought out the help of Martin Luther at Wittenberg. Just one year after his English New Testament was completed and printed in Cologne in 1525, copies were being smuggled into England – the first ever Bibles written in the English vernacular” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/people/william_tyndale/).
The RCC responded by banning the newly-translated Bible and accusing Tyndale of heresy. Going into hiding, the reformer began to work on translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into English.
“King Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in 1534 signalled the beginning of the English Reformation, and Tyndale believed it was safe to carry on his work in public. He moved to Antwerp (in modern Belgium) and began to live more openly” (ibid).
• Arrest and death
In May 1535, Tyndale was betrayed by an Englishman called Henry Phillips who feigned friendship with him. Accused of heresy, Tyndale was arrested and imprisoned in Vilvoorde Castle outside Brussels for more than a year. On 6th October 1536, Tyndale was tried and found guilty of heresy and treason. He was strangled and then burned at the stake in the market square of Antwerp.
Tyndale’s last words before his death were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” God answered the dying prayer of His fearless servant. Two years after his death, King Henry VIII authorised the publication of the “Great Bible” for the Church of England. This publication was largely based on Tyndale’s original translation work.
“By 1539 every parish in England was required to have a copy of the Bible in English and to make it available to every parishioner. Over the next seventy years, two million copies of the Bible were sold in England. And when the translators of the King James Version produced their Bible in 1611, they relied heavily on Tyndale’s wording” (https://www.gotquestions.org/William-Tyndale.html).
William Tyndale is best remembered for his translation of the Bible into the English language. Though he faced severe persecution and overwhelming odds, Tyndale pressed on valiantly to make God’s Word available to the lay people in their own language. By the time of his execution in 1536, several thousand copies of his English New Testament had been printed and widely circulated.
Indeed, the translation of the Bible was one of the earliest and most powerful blows that shook the RCC. “With the Bible in every parish Church, every thoughtful man soon saw that the religion of the priests had no warrant of Holy Scripture” (J C Ryle).
Thank God for raising this hero of faith who gave his life to free the common people from sin’s bondage and the RCC by giving them the precious Bible.
Martyrs like Tyndale paid dearly with their lives, that we might hold the Bible in our hands today. May we cherish and obey God's Word which was brought to us at such a cost. Let us be found faithful to defend the truth till Jesus returns.